By Agent Stardog
Greetings phriends and galactic citizens. Your phriendly neighborhood Stardog was so offended by the Phunion’s trashing of “Big Boat” that I was moved to write this response. This is not to say I have no appreciation for the Phunion’s brand of ribald jamrock humor, heck that’s why I know these phreaks in the first place. But the Phunion has gone too far this time! While other Phishy critiquers had generated low expectations with their gripes, I found the album to be a moving listening experience that kept getting deeper with each track, similar to how a great live set by the band can function. By the end, I could only conclude that Phish had defied expectations once again by delivering a great album full of heart and soul (not to mention some hot jams).
“Big Boat” holds together with the kind of thematic cohesion and sonic diversity that we look for in a great Phish show. It also features Vermont’s finest wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Getting a handle on that is what seems to be something which a certain cynical segment of the Phish Nation is sadly unable to abide. This misguided labeling of “Dad Rock” suggests a distaste for music with a sentimental flavor, yet Phish has long been a band that causes our souls to ignite precisely because of their ability to tap into deep emotional territory (in addition to the transcendent jams). It seems like some phans might be happier on Widespread Panic tour, because they want Phish to be dark and dirty all the time (WSP’s forte). Yet these are mostly the same phans that ironically hate on WSP! This does not compute.
Phish has always been a multi-dimensional band and “Big Boat” is triumphant testimony to that sonic depth, as well as an emotionally bold and timely declaration of where the scene is at in this foul year of our lord 2016. Let’s take a chronological look at the album so we can see how it builds and comes together in sequence as a great album should. “Friends” is a high energy rocker to kick it off and while some phans will quibble with the vocal delivery, this is a soul-stirring message from Phish’s political ambassador Jon Fishman. The lyrics basically describe a “first contact” scenario with our E.T. neighbors that lead to a transcendent evolutionary moment with humanity joining the galactic community. What an inspiring theme for a Phish song!
“Breath and Burning” is no B-side but rather an infectiously laid back feel good groove that recalls the upbeat mood of fan favorites like “Ya Mar” and “Soul Shakedown Party.” The horns are a great addition that lend a “Blues Brothers”-style rhythm and blues vibe and who doesn’t love the Blues Brothers? I’d say Phish are on a mission from God here, but they worship their own religion and “Big Boat” is full of spiritual sentiment from the Helping Friendly Book. “Home” might sound like a typical Page song at first, but then the band gets rolling into a smoking jam with Trey tearing it up over a crisp snare beat that recalls Bob Ezrin’s great work with KISS on their classic “Destroyer” album. Phans want jams, well here you go!
“Blaze On” was an instant classic anthem for the Phish Nation upon its debut in the summer of 2015 and the band really captures the song’s free-spirited sentiment with a vibrant performance here. Anyone who can’t dig these lyrics is just a curmudgeon. “Tide Turns” has an upbeat optimistic vibe that feels downright comforting during this turbulent and contentious political season. The horns once again lend a great boost and the uplifting groove conjures some of the spirit of the Jerry Garcia Band. “Things People Do” is written by Page but sounds like classic Mike, with a wry outlook that recalls his endearing delivery on “My Mind’s Got a Mind of It’s Own” (and wherever did that great song disappear to?) The song serves as a fitting prelude to “Waking Up Dead,” with vintage high strangeness that we all know and love from Mike. This song gets jammy, has atmospheric backing vocals, trippy synths from Page and a Beatle-esque bridge. It all adds up to a very Phishy slice of psychedelia.
“Running Out of Time” is no TAB reject, but rather a heartfelt tune from Trey that seems like it’s coming from the same character featured in “Driver,” some 20 years later. Anyone entering middle age like Trey and the band are should be able to relate. It might seem a bit sappy in the beginning but then the tale unfolds with endearing charm. When the band kicks in, it’s a bouncy feel good melodic groove. It’s also ripe for further jamming.
The most mind-boggling, shark-jumping aspect of the Phunion’s review was the completely insane assertion that “No Men in No Man’s Land” has “overstayed its welcome. Talk about cognitive dissonance upon reading that crazy talk because NMINML is not only an instant classic Phish song, it’s one of the best rock songs of the 21st century by anybody. Biting the Dead’s mid-’70s rendition of “Dancing in the Streets” for a funky jam with lyrics that conjure vibes of a modern day “Throwing Stones” is pure artistic brilliance. This song became a prime Phish jam vehicle in just its second ever performance (at the epic 7/25/16 Day Out of Time show in LA) and taps into the modern zeitgeist so well. Far from having overstayed its welcome, the song is poised to pump up Phish shows for the conceivable future. This version smokes and in fact features one of the hotter jams that Phish has ever recorded on a studio album. The horns add further energy again and with three tracks featuring horns, one could wonder if a live horn section might be waiting in the wings for fall tour.
“Miss You” is arguably the weak link of the album if there is one, although it clearly comes from the heart. It’s at least better than “Joy,” although not as endearing as “Show of Life.” Then just when you think the album could be about to tail off, Phish flips the script again with a dope ass electronica jam on “I Always Wanted It This Way.” Perhaps the vocals could have been recorded with more clarity but this Page tune suggests an ingenious blend of ‘70s power pop, ‘80s new wave synth rock and the late ‘90s/early 2000s trance dance jamtronica from the second wave of younger jambands that were influenced by Phish (SCI, Bisco, STS9, etc). You want jams? This song has Sirius jam potential and should soon be a fan favorite.
“More” also has great jam potential with Trey really opening up his soul to speak for our entire counterculture generation. Is he not speaking for all of us when he sings of “pulsating with love and light in a world gone mad” and urgently feeling that there must be something more to life on Earth than just the corrupt rat race of Wilson’s foul domain? It’s another timely anthem for the Phish Nation that pulses with vibrant melodic goodness, with a sweet jam that could really hit some righteous heights on tour.
Seeing “Petrichor” conclude this album instead of “Mercury” was a curveball, as it didn’t scream Phish jam vehicle when Trey played it at his orchestra shows. But what a transformation with the quartet dynamic. Is this not the type of intricate composed prog-rock jam that phans have been clamoring for? The song really takes a sonic journey and the jam that follows the “clouds will open/rain came down” section is pure Phishy goodness at its finest. 13 songs for the band’s 13th studio album is no coincidence either, the Mayan galactic prime number in action, and in the year that Phish finally made it to the Mayan Riviera taboot taboot.
You have to tip your hat to the band for following their hearts and turning out a soul-baring album that really holds together as a thematic statement when they know their persnickety fanbase is going to be skeptical of new material in general. In the end, it seems like that certain cynical segment of the Phish Nation that wants to categorize this album as “dad rock” has some emotional issues to deal with. “Big Boat” is a vibrant reflection of the times we live in, delivered with superb musicianship, courageous soul-baring emotion, voice of a counterculture generation sentiment, and oh yeah, at least a handful of dope ass jam vehicles too. What more could #RealFans want from their favorite band?